Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Washington Capitals: 2012-2013 By the Tens -- The Builders

“The space within becomes the reality of the building.”
-- Frank Lloyd Wright

Building the Washington Capitals roster for the 2012-2013 season did not start with the acquisition of Zach Hamill from Boston for Chris Bourque on May 26, 2012, but it was the first transaction of the 2012 off-season.  Eighty-four transactions later (sources: Capitals media guide and other sources), the Caps 2012-2013 season was over.

Some of those transactions were administrative, such as intra-organization transactions of the sort where a player is sent to or called up from the Hershey Bears.  There were 30 of those reported in the 2012-2013 season.  There were those transactions attached to injury management, placing or removing players from injured reserve.  Those represent another eight reported transactions.  Then there were the sort that comes down from the league – suspensions.  There were two such reported transactions of that type. 

That leaves 44 transactions of the sort folks might think of with respect to roster management – trades, contract signings (free agents, roster players, signing draft picks), waiver transactions.  On top of that were ten players selected in the 2012 NHL entry draft.  One would think those picks were more or less “futures,” and to a great extent they are.  But the 2012 entry draft as practiced by the Caps did have its own effects on the 2012-2013 season.  But we will get to that.  Let’s look at each of the groups of transactions.

Free Agents

Here is the list of free agents signed by the Caps in the period beginning with the end of the 2011-2012 season and the end of the 2012-2013 season (click the picture for a larger image):

Five of the players among those 10 signings played for the Caps in the 2012-2013 season.  They had an aggregate cap cost of $2,773,653 (source: capgeek.com).  One would have to say that on balance the Caps received value for those signings.  Those five players played in 145 games and had an aggregate scoring line of 19-27-46, plus-32.  For purposes of comparison, on an 82-game basis that is an 11-15-26, plus-18 scoring line for a “player” with a $1.569 million cap hit.  The positive spin on that fact would be that Daniel Alfredsson finished his season with the Ottawa Senators with a scoring line of 10-16-26, plus-1, and had a cap hit of $4.875 million. 

The negative spin on this would be that none of the five players could be thought of as an impact player – a driver.  Crabb and Wolski were disappointments (or “low risk,” if you prefer to think of them that way, given their cap hits).  Hillen spent much of the season on injured reserve and was a third pair defenseman when in the lineup.  Fehr shuttled among lines but was primarily a third or a fourth liner (nine Caps forwards averaged more even-strength ice time per game).  Oleksy was among the best stories of the season, coming out of nowhere to get steady ice time and to make contributions, but there are no assurances that he is going to be getting a sweater on a nightly basis going forward.

It is worth noting here that two players the Caps signed to unrestricted free agent deals in the last two seasons – Roman Hamrlik in 2011 and Joey Crabb in 2012 (combined cap hit: $4.450 million in 2012-2013) were waived during this past season.  Hamrlik was claimed by the New York Rangers, while Crabb passed through waivers and was re-assigned to the Hershey Bears.  He will not return for 2013-2014.

On balance, one might conclude that the Caps played well in the shallow end of the pool.  This is not a team that goes out in the deep water for a high-impact free agent.  The salary cap limits the Caps’ ability to do that, what with their heavy commitments of cap room to roster players such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green (31.8 percent of the 2012-2013 cap).  But even if it did not, it is not as if the Caps have derived great value from recent, more high-priced unrestricted free agent signings.  Joel Ward is a nice complementary player, but at $3.0 million a year?  The Caps got a decent season out of Roman Hamrlik in 2011-2012, but got almost nothing from him for a $3.5 million annualized cap hit in 2013 before he was waived.  The Caps appeared to go for low-risk role players through free agency.  It was modest ambition, but in that context it worked out perhaps better than one might have expected.


Here is the list of trades recorded by the Caps over the past 12-plus months, spanning their elimination from the 2012 playoffs and the end of their 2013 season (click the picture for a larger image):

And here are the incoming/outgoing results:

There are two trades of note here, one early and one late.  Last June the Caps sent Cody Eakin and a 2012 second-round draft pick to Dallas for Mike Ribeiro.  In terms of the here-and-now, it was a deal that favored the Caps.  Both players finished by playing in all 48 games of the abbreviated season.  However, Ribeiro had more goals (13 to 7), more assists (36 to 17), more points (49 to 24), had a superior power play scoring line (6-21-27 to 3-0-3), and played in almost three more minutes per game (17:50 to 15:05).  The Caps made the playoffs, in large part due to the contributions of Ribeiro, while the Stars did not.

Ah, but here is the thing.  The operative phrase in the preceding paragraph is “the here-and-now.”  There are no assurances that the Capitals will re-sign Mike Ribeiro, who is an unrestricted free agent.  Meanwhile the Stars have Cody Eakin – a 22-year old prospect – for another season at a friendly cap hit ($637,778) and will still be only a restricted free agent when that deal expires next season.  There is also the second-round pick (Mike Winther) the Stars received that the Caps could not use to restock their prospect pool.  On balance, the trade addressed a long-standing hole in the Caps roster, a reliable second-line center.  But it came with a price – uncertainty.  If Ribeiro does not re-sign, the Caps have nothing to show for moving a prospect and a pick.  It was the right thing to do at the time, to be sure, but given how the Caps finished the season, there was not a lot of payoff.

The late trade of consequence was one that had Caps fans scratching their heads.  Washington moved the top-ranked European skater in the 2012 draft to Nashville for a solid, if unspectacular winger and a prospect.  It was Filip Forsberg heading to the Predators for Martin Erat and Michael Latta.  It was not quite a “win now” sort of trade (Erat has two more years on his current contract at a $4.5 million cap hit in each season), but the Caps gave up what was thought last June to be a large piece of its future.  One cannot foresee injury, but that is what happened to Erat in Game 4 of the Caps’ first-round loss to the Rangers in the 2013 playoffs.  In 13 games (regular season and playoffs) for Washington, Erat was 1-2-3, plus-1.  Forsberg was 0-1-1, minus-5 in five games with Nashville, so in a sense, both sides of this trade represent “futures.”

On balance, these two trades of consequence were two sides of the same coin.  Ribeiro was obtained last summer to fill a hole – second line center – this year.  Erat was obtained this spring to address a need – a scoring line winger who can fill a variety of roles (not the least of which was making up for the absence of the injured and versatile Brooks Laich) – this year.  Well, this year the Caps were one and done in the playoffs for the sixth time in nine post-seasons for which they qualified since they went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998 and for the third time in six seasons.  If the object of such trades is to make the team better so that it can realize more success in the biggest games on the largest stage, then at least for this year, these were not successful trades.

Contract Extensions

The Caps re-signed ten players (eight of them on the parent roster) to contract extensions since last September.  The eight parent roster players signed to extensions will encumber $16.721 million in cap room in 2013-2014 (26.0 percent).  The term for these players is not burdensome – only John Carlson’s new deal is for more than three years, only Troy Brouwer’s the other one more than two years.  But these re-signings do shine a light on what the Caps think of the roster they’ve built (click on the picture for a larger image):

With both goaltenders – Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth – and six skaters on the parent roster being re-upped, the Caps seem rather pleased with their roster, especially since none of the eight players are part of what is arguably the “core” of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Brooks Laich.  This is not only the corps of foot soldiers with whom the Caps chose to go into battle in the 2012-2013 season, but it is that group with which the Caps want to go to battle for the next couple of years, at least.

There were notable absences among the re-signed players.  The contracts of Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, and Dennis Wideman were not renewed (Wideman was traded to Calgary, but that was a rights deal based on the presumption the Caps would not renew his contract).  It seemed to be a case of equal parts age (Knuble, Halpern) and affordability (Wideman and Semin signed deals with their new teams with a combined $12.250 million cap hit).  The Wideman and Semin situations were complicated by persistent flaws in their games – Semin’s consistency and Wideman’s shortcomings in the defensive end. 

We are not of a mind that the loss of either Wideman or Semin (or Knuble or Halpern, for that matter) had significant negative impacts on the team, especially since the Caps essentially swapped a scoring winger (Semin) for a second line center (Ribeiro) with a lower 2012-2013 cap hit.

That is not to say that there were not head-scratchers among the re-signings.  The first that comes to mind is the two-year/$3.925 million signing of John Erskine.  It is the fourth time that Erskine has been re-signed as an unrestricted free agent eligible player.  The cap hits on each of the four two-year deals have been of increasing value: $537,500, $1,250,000, $1,500,000, and $1,962,500 in his most recent re-signing (source: capgeek.com).  Defense is a difficult position to fill in depth, and Erskine fills essentially that role with the Caps as a 5-6 defenseman (despite his getting significant second pair minutes with the club in 2012-2013).  The question here is whether that sort of deal is one appropriate to a physical, third pair defenseman who will be almost 35 when it expires.  Looking at his comparables in cap hit and age (source: capgeek.com), they might include Cory Sarich, Greg Zanon, Matt Carkner, Jay Harrison, and Carlo Colaiacovo (age range: 30-34, cap hit: $1.5 - $2.5 million).  Does Erskine fit in that neighborhood?

The other re-signings that might seem odd are the goalies.  Braden Holtby was re-signed to a two-year deal in February that carries a $1.85 million cap hit.  Then, in April, Washington re-signed Michal Neuvirth (at the time their backup goaltender) to a two-year deal with a $2.5 million cap hit, a deal that will more than double Neuvirth’s annual compensation under the deal that just expired.  The fact is that 15 goalies will have larger cap hits than this tandem will have for the Caps in 2013-2014, and 13 of them have five or more years remaining on their respective deals.  But it does look a bit odd to have the team’s backup making 35 percent more than the team’s number one goalie.


Last June the Caps selected ten players in the 2012 NHL entry draft.  Two of those players – Filip Forsberg and Tom Wilson – were first round picks taken 11th and 16th overall, respectively.  Forsberg was the number one ranked European prospect in the draft and was ranked as high as third overall by tsn.ca.  That he slipped to 11th seemed to catch the Caps by surprise.  But when he did, he took his place with 2010 draft pick Evgeni Kuznetsov (ironically, another highly thought of amateur who fell into the Caps lap later in the first round of the 2010 draft) as what was hoped to be the next generation of skilled forwards who would take their place alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Forsberg will not fulfill that vision.  Less than a year after his selection, at the April trading deadline, he was traded to Nashville for forward Martin Erat and prospect Michael Latta.  That future vision telescoped closer to the present with the acquisition of a 31-year old veteran who could contribute now in exchange for a player who might not be a significant contributor for another 2-3 years.

Tom Wilson was different in another respect.  He was taken 16th overall, perhaps a few spots higher than his ranking might have suggested (the same tsn.ca draft ranking that had Forsberg third overall had Wilson 18th overall, and Central Scouting had Wilson as the 15th ranked North American skater).  But he brought qualities the Caps have lacked in recent years, notably a quality for making life difficult for opposing players with his physical, hard-nosed style.

That makes the top-end yield for the Caps from the 2012 draft a 31-year old veteran top-six winger and a potential second or third line two-way winger who might make the team 2-3 years from now (although he did get a taste of playoff experience in the first round loss to the Rangers).

And that brings us to the mid and late rounds of the draft.  The Caps had no second round pick in 2012, leaving them with a third, two fourths, a fifth, a sixth, and three seventh round picks.  These have not been fertile grounds for the Caps to pick contributing players, as this table shows with players selected by the Caps who dressed for the club and the number of games they played in a Washington uniform (click on the picture for a larger image):

Drafts are messengers of hope, but one has to wonder with this record in draft picks after the second round if hope of contributions from these picks is well-placed.  The 2012 draft is likely to come down to the contributions Martin Erat (as compensation for Filip Forsberg) and Tom Wilson make. 

In the end...

George McPhee is general manager, but he is merely the apex of a hockey operations organization of talent evaluators, capologists, and other personnel whose job it is to put the best team possible on the ice and to have the vision and talent to manage in the present and provide for the future.  In that sense, it is harder to evaluate hockey operations within the tidy boundaries of a single NHL season.  The team is the product of actions taken years before this, and some actions taken this season will not be worthy of a verdict for years to come. 

However, by the same token, those seasons can be looked at as a body of work and compared to this one to see if the team has improved, if it has grown, if it has become or has the reasonable expectation of being a championship contender.  The fact is, since their surprising march to a playoff berth in 2008, there is a certain sameness to this club over the last five seasons ending with this one.  It has been a collection of fine regular season performances and disappointing post-season efforts.  The Caps have averaged 105 standings points over the past five regular seasons, but they have not advanced past the second round of the post-season. 

Just as bad, there is the look of a team flailing about in search of an identity.  Over those five seasons the Caps have been the Greatest Show on Ice, then they pulled back into a trapping team, then they were the passive coin-flip result sort of team, then something of a hybrid.  Perhaps the selection of Adam Oates as head coach was what this club needed to get over the hump and make a deep playoff run.  They were a much better team late than they were early.  And even with yet another first round exit (their third in six seasons), Oates provided one more measure of hope for Caps fans.

But frankly, this movie is not a classic, it’s just old.  The Caps tinker around the edges of their core players, they do not often make consequential trade or sign difference-making free agents.  This year was much of the same, right down to the results.  The trades for Mike Ribeiro and Martin Erat qualify as blockbusters if compared to the recent history of the club, but not quite that sort of impactful sort of trade when looked at in a more league-wide context.  Free agent signings were of the discount variety.  They worked out better than one might have expected, but let no one think there was an impact player obtained by those means for the 2012-2013 season.  The dividends from the draft – not to be realized for some years to come – do not inspire hope given the history of success among mid and low round draft picks for this team.

There is just too much sameness about this season from a personnel management point of view, almost as if the aim is the same each year, to make the playoffs.  Unfortunately, that seems not a bar to clear but the ceiling for this team and its philosophy.

Grade: C